Food entrepreneur, Manipur

80-shubhra-devi Shubhra Devi | Salil Bera

SHUBHRA DEVI was a student at Banasthali Vidyapith, Rajasthan, when she was introduced to the pickles and murabba her dorm mates got from home. Each pickle was different, redolent of the flavours of that state. Shubhra yearned for a touch of Manipur in her thaali, too. But there was none. “Manipur does not have a tradition of pickles. The best we have is dried or fermented fish,” she says. Back home, armed with qualifications in food technology, she started Meira, in 2004. “Meira is torch in the local language, evocative of the night vigils by Manipuri women to protest against social ills. We are torchbearers,” she says.

Shubhra began with four women employees; no loans, no subsidies. In those days, banks were not too keen to lend to enterprises in the northeast, and that too, one run by a woman. Today, she employs over 100 women, directly and indirectly. She began with pickle pouches costing just one rupee. Today, her smallest packet is priced at Rs 50.

As we tour her food processing unit, myriad eastern flavours invade our senses—earthy oyster mushrooms being fried for pickling, pungent flakes of local ginger being dried, and the fiery invasion of ghost pepper or bhut jolokia, one of the hottest chillies in the world, which grows in east India. A group is bottling a jolfoy (local olive) pickle in mustard oil, while a row of freshly bottled fermented fish and soy bean pickle stand enticingly on a shelf.

Her range has expanded from pickles and candies to powdered masalas and canned food, like fish and black rice kheer. She is at present wondering how to process the yongchak or tree beans, a local favourite. “Pickling will kill its flavours, maybe I will can them,” she says.

Shubhra has not done much by way of marketing or advertising, but wherever there is a Manipuri in the world, her products have reached them, she says. In Delhi, every shop catering to the northeast community stocks her products. Shubhra is now planning to expand beyond the state. “On target is Assam, and then, Bengaluru. King chilli products and even our turmeric powder and ginger flakes are popular with non-Manipuris. For the north and south Indian market, I will have to tweak flavours a bit. I am working on it.”

Shubhra has displayed her products at international trade fairs in Myanmar, Thailand and Bangladesh, and found a good response. So, she is now planning to open a Look East outlet at the border town of Moreh. One tantalising flavour after another, one little step at a time, Shubra is taking the flavours of her state across the country and beyond.